House of Cards: The curious case of Ace Magashule’s upmarket pad

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA ñ SEPTEMBER 11: African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule during a media briefing about his meeting with former president Jacob Zuma on September 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Responding to allegations that he met Zuma to discuss a plot to oust President Cyril Ramaphosa, Magashule said he met the former president over organisational issues. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

In 2015, then Free State Premier Ace Magashule had to quash a minor controversy over issues with building regulations at a new R6-million house in Bloemfontein. At the time, Magashule claimed he was financing the construction project with a bank loan. But that wasn’t the case, while documents and source accounts point to the involvement of contractors rumoured to be close to the then premier.

One of South Africa’s largest gated communities sits on a 1,000ha slice of land some 12km north of downtown Bloemfontein.

The Woodlands Hills Wildlife Estate, where some of the grander properties sell for around R6-million, is home to some 4,500 of the city’s more well-to-do citizens. Woodlands’ residents enjoy access to hiking and bicycle trails, tennis courts and bowling lawns, complemented by the novelty of having giraffe, zebra and several species of antelope wander freely between the double-storey homes.

In October 2010, one Mosidi Lydia Motsemme paid R400,000 for an empty stand near the estate’s northern boundary. According to records at the Deeds Office, Motsemme bought the property without a bank loan. At the time, she worked as a government official in the Free State provincial legislature.

If Motsemme’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because she briefly featured in 2017’s #GuptaLeaks exposés. It was revealed that Motsemme had sent an email to Tshepiso Magashule, the then premier’s son, before the 2014 general elections. In her email, Motsemme requested airtime for ANC “party agents” in the province. Motsemme wrote that the request was a “directive” of then ANC provincial chairperson Ace Magashule. Her email travelled through a chain of Gupta associates and eventually reached Rajesh “Tony” Gupta.

The news reports correctly described Motsemme as an employee of the provincial legislature, but to those tapped into the province’s ANC circles, she was known as much more than that.

Some ANC insiders refer to Motsemme as Magashule’s “Bloemfontein wife”. Magashule apparently met Motsemme in the 1990s, when she was a young ANC volunteer. She later got a job at the provincial legislature, where she eventually worked her way up to director level. Magashule has been legally married to Seipati Magashule, the mother of Tshepiso and his younger brother Thato, since the late 1980s.

Seipati lives in Parys, the former premier’s home town. But his long-term romantic relationship with Motsemme is barely a secret. The couple lived together at Free State House, the premier’s official residence near Bloemfontein’s Naval Hill, and they have at least three children together, including twins.

These are the “young children” then public works MEC Sam Mashinini referred to in media reports in 2012 after it became known that the province had spent almost R8-million on upgrades to the swimming pool at Free State House.

The pool was large and unnecessarily deep, which meant it hardly heated up in the summer and was difficult for the premier to use as he has small children,” Mashinini had told news outlets.

Although Mashinini did not directly mention Motsemme, sources in the Free State ANC say the MEC was referring to Motsemme’s children with Magashule.

Motsemme’s Woodlands Hills erf, meanwhile, stood empty for a few years after she bought it in 2010. In May 2013, she finally submitted building plans to the building and zoning control office at the Mangaung metropolitan municipality for the construction of a new house on the plot.

These documents, along with other records of the construction process and a few source accounts, tell the curious story of Magashule’s luxury Bloemfontein pad.

The building plans revealed that Motsemme intended to go large. The new structure would cover 944m2 and it would cost an “estimated” R6-million, according to the council application.

A building control officer and the general manager for planning at the council signed the “approval of building plans” form in late May 2013, a day after the plans were submitted for approval.

It is not clear when exactly construction commenced at the Woodlands Hills site, but Google Earth proved to be an invaluable tool in this regard. The programme allows one to view historical satellite images of almost any location on earth, which made it possible to track progress with Motsemme’s house in chronological order.

By the end of May 2014, some site preparation and groundworks had been done at the property. By April 2015, the concrete slabs for the first floor had been placed on the building’s walls, and by May 2015 the walls for the upstairs rooms were nearly done, the Google Earth satellite images revealed.

In other words, by May 2015, Motsemme’s house was well on its way to being completed. It is important to note that, at this juncture, there was no bank bond registered to the property. This means Motsemme had somehow been footing what must have been some rather large bills for the ongoing project. Or she had been receiving financial assistance from someone else.

Then, in June 2015, Volksblad drew attention to the house. The Bloemfontein-based newspaper reported that the new structure, which was now nearing completion, contravened the Mangaung metro’s building regulations. The controversy mainly revolved around a “port cochere”, which is the fancy name for a slim, roof-like structure that extends from a house’s entrance and covers part of its driveway. Apparently, this structure went over the “statutory” building line.

As far as Scorpio’s investigation is concerned, the most important aspect of the Volksblad report is the fact that Magashule placed it on record that he was closely involved in the building of the Woodlands house. Although the property was registered to Motsemme’s name, Magashule told the newspaper that he was, in fact, the owner.

He also made another crucial claim in his response to Volksblad, namely that he had been funding the construction with a “mortgage from the bank”. But this simply was not the case. Deeds records confirm that Magashule has never held a bank bond on the property. At that point in time, there was also no bank bond registered to Motsemme’s name.

A photo of the building site that accompanied the newspaper report showed that the house’s second storey was almost finished by this time, as also indicated by the Google Earth images.

In the months after the Volksblad report, meanwhile, work on the house continued. Google Earth’s satellite images suggest work on the roof commenced before or during July 2015, and it seems as if the roof was finished in August.

About a month later, in mid-September, with the main structural work seemingly nearly done, Motsemme finally registered a bond with Nedbank, valued at just more than R4.5-million, according to Deeds Office records:

The timing of the bond registration begs several questions: How did Motsemme manage to pay the contractors for materials and for the considerable chunk of work that had been done before she secured the bond? And why did Magashule claim he was financing the project with a bank loan while this simply was not the case?

Sources familiar with the saga allege that the then premier and his “Bloemfontein wife” were trying to cover up the fact that the massive house was being built for them by third parties. One of the sources claimed the project had been bankrolled by contractors who were close to Magashule and who had been scoring massive contracts from the Free State provincial government.

The Volksblad article gave Magashule a fright; it drew attention to the property. They realised they would have to secure a bank loan to explain how they could fund it. That is why they got the bond, even though the house was almost finished by the time they got the loan,” claimed one source who had been privy to aspects of the project.

Another source, one of the contractors initially involved in the project, claimed that Motsemme didn’t have enough money to build the large house. This resulted in this source’s firm “walking away” from the project.

Her finances were weak; she never really had the money to build the house, so we pulled out because of the financial risk,” said the source.

The Guptas of the Free State’

Scorpio’s sources alleged that the powerful Dockrat family had a hand in building the Woodlands house. Based in Vereeniging, the Dockrats count among the coterie of businesspeople who were rumoured to have been unusually close to Magashule during his reign as premier of the Free State. Some ANC insiders refer to the Dockrats as “the Guptas of the Free State”, on account of the massive government contracts their businesses secured under the Magashule administration.

Zaid Dockrat, CEO of Sedtrade, the family’s construction firm, strongly denied the allegation:

The Dockrat family and/or any of its associates have played no role whatsoever in the above project. In addition, I categorically state that there hasn’t been any financial and/or material contribution made by Sedtrade or any associated company, to the said project,” Dockrat said in a written statement. His full response can be accessed here.

Although not nearly as well known as some other prominent families and businesses associated with State Capture and corruption, the Dockrats have had a few moments in the limelight. In 2017, EWN revealed that Sedgars, the Dockrats’ sports and clothing business, had helped bankroll a R680,000 luxury holiday in Dubai for former sport minister Fikile Mbalula and his family. The Dockrats denied this, but Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane later confirmed that the family had helped pay for the Mbalulas’ overseas jaunt.

The Dockrats’ business empire initially included sporting goods and clothing stores in the Vereeniging area, but it is their expansion into road works and other government construction projects that has been raising eyebrows, especially in the Free State. Sedtrade, the Dockrats’ main construction company, apparently became particularly successful at winning government contracts during Magashule’s time as premier.

Zaid Dockrat denied that Sedtrade or its affiliated companies received favourable treatment because of any alleged familiarity with Magashule or other provincial officials:

We can assure you that the tenders that were awarded were in compliance with the relevant legislation and regulations and (we) were successful because of Sedtrade’s excellent history of performance with government departments.”

Government tender bulletins and related documents support claims by sources that the Dockrats earned revenues from Magashule’s administration that ran into billions of rand. Between 2013 and 2018, Sedtrade received more than R700-million from the province’s department of police, roads and transport alone, according to payment records from that department.

In the same period, Sedtrade also scored more than R250-million in revenues from the Free State’s department of human settlements, according to the housing subsidy system (HSS), an online portal that captures information on expenditure and related details pertaining to low-cost housing projects.

Sedtrade has even won contracts from the Free State’s department of health for the distribution of medical products, according to tender bulletins.

It is against this backdrop that sources in the province, some of whom once moved very close to Magashule, expressed concerns that the former premier enjoyed a disconcertingly close relationship with the Dockrats. These same sources alerted Scorpio to the possibility that the Dockrats may have been involved in the Woodlands project. Once again, documents obtained by Scorpio seemingly at least partly confirmed these claims.

Magashule’s official diary as premier, obtained through a Promotion of Access to Information Act application, indicates that he met with the Dockrats, or at least someone in their fold, on at least one occasion before Motsemme submitted the building plans for the Woodlands house.

In January 2012, Magashule had a “private meeting” with Sedgars, the sporting goods and clothing arm of the Dockrats’ business empire, according to the diary. The meeting took place in Vereeniging. In subsequent years, Magashule had several other meetings or engagements in Vereeniging, although the diary does not state that these meetings were with the Dockrats or anyone linked to them.

Zaid Dockrat side-stepped a query about Magashule’s “private meeting” at Sedgars, as referred to in his diary. He seemed to suggest that if any politician had visited Sedgars, it would have been to shop there:

It is surprising that you ask about former Premier Magashule frequenting Sedgars. There are many other politicians, including those from the DA and EFF, who frequent Sedgars. Members of Cosatu also frequent Sedgars. The fact that Sedgars supplies sought-after products at very competitive prices is perhaps the most obvious explanation,” said Dockrat. Allegations that dubious “deals (were) done behind closed doors at Sedgars” were “absolute nonsense”, added Dockrat.

However, the building plans submitted by Motsemme at the Mangaung council, along with other documents related to the Woodlands house, bear several sets of fingerprints that underpin the involvement of the Dockrats and some of their associates.

The architectural compliance certificate and buildings plans submitted to the Mangaung council include the name and signature of Imran Mulla, who drew the house plans on behalf of a firm called Urban Edge Architects, in which he was a director. But according to documents in Scorpio’s possession, Mulla has direct ties to Sedtrade, the Dockrats’ construction company. Mulla has listed Sedtrade as his employer on at least three occasions in the past couple of years, the documents show.

A source who had been closely involved in the project claimed that Mulla, or Urban Edge Architects, designed the house without getting paid for it. The source indicated that an architect’s fees for such a project would normally amount to about R200,000.

Mulla denied the allegation.

Your sources are grossly mistaken. The client was invoiced for services rendered and such invoices have in fact been paid,” he stated.

Additional records of the construction process also confirm the involvement of a firm called A4 Advisory and Consulting. According to company records, this entity’s sole director is Atiyya Dockrat. The phone number provided for A4 Advisory and Consulting on the records for the Woodlands project also happens to be the same one listed on several websites and platforms as the main landline number for Sedtrade’s head office in Vereeniging.

Mulla said he had provided consulting services for the Dockrats and their businesses on several projects while he was still working for Urban Edge, the architectural firm that designed the Woodlands house. Motsemme continued using his services when he later moved to A4 Advisory and Consulting, explained Mulla.

I am certain that you will agree that it’s not uncommon for clients to follow a professional, when such professional moves employment,” he stated. Mulla did not directly address queries regarding the Dockrat family’s alleged involvement in the project.

Another firm included in the original building plans submitted by Motsemme is Namso Construction, which is listed as the main contractor. Shabeer Moosa, Namso’s owner, claimed that he only became involved in the project towards the end.

There were contractors before me doing the civil works and other things. Namso did the superstructure (the fixed structure on top of the foundation) and the wet works (plastering, cement works and so on”, said Moosa. He also insisted that his firm had been paid from the bank loan Motsemme had secured from Nedbank.

But Moosa’s version of events is contradicted by documents in the same file at the Mangaung council that contain the house’s building plans. An “application for approval of foundation excavations” form, dated 22 July 2014, lists Namso Construction as the main contractor. In other words, Moosa’s firm had been involved in the project right from the start, at least according to the document.

Namso Construction had also started doing work on the project more than a year before Motsemme obtained the bank loan from Nedbank, the form suggested. This means Namso Construction, along with any other contractors or service providers involved in the project, could not have been paid from Motsemme’s bank loan in the period between mid-2014 and September 2015.

A conveyancing attorney based in Johannesburg confirmed that Motsemme could not have legally accessed a cent from the Nedbank loan before the R4.5-million covering mortgage bond was registered at the Deeds Office in September 2015.

Bank laws in this regard are very strict, there can be no payments until the bond is registered. In any case, the banks need the bond to be registered to ensure security for their loan,” said the conveyancer.

As mentioned earlier, the Google Earth satellite images indicate that the bulk of the main structural works, including the installation of the roof, had been completed before Motsemme’s Nedbank loan was registered at the Deeds Office.

If Namso Construction had worked at the site for more than a year before the bank loan materialised, as the council records suggested, how was the firm paid? When pressed on this and other related matters, Moosa said via WhatsApp that his “attorney advised (him) to stay away from further discussions regarding this issue”. He later denied that he had been involved in any wrongdoing related to the construction of the Woodlands house, or that he was aware of any malfeasance.

Motsemme refused to consider any queries about the property.

It has got nothing to do with you,” she told Scorpio over the phone before ending the call.

Magashule did not respond to queries sent to him via Dakota Legoete, the ANC’s spokesperson.

We have went (sic) through your questions [sic] and advise that the matter is more personal than organisational. It will be well placed that you direct your questions to individuals mentioned,” said Legoete. He said queries regarding “personal transactions” of individual party members were “unfair to the ANC”. DM


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